Quick Note - Air ships, floating islands and WONDER!

Quick Note – Islands in the Sky

One of the most classic (in my opinion) tenets of fantasy is the sky island, or temple or generally just a giant floating SOMETHING that shouldn't be floating at all. Throughout games, movies, tv shows and so on there have been various means and ways in which character have made it to these places, but the most famous tend to be teleportation and airships.

Airships are in my opinion one of the best methods as they allow for so much more than just a one stop mechanic, like teleportation does. However, airships (outside of Eberron and some Science Fantasy settings) have pretty much gone the way of the dodo and are considered to be hooky little things that take away from the modern opinion of grimdark and dungeon punk. Personally I like airships, they add a sense of swashbuckling, high adventure to a game and if they are a rare thing make the characters think of themselves as somehow special or unique in their world. However, let's go back to the islands in the sky and lets go back with a bang.

Take a look at this remastered clip from the remake of the early 1990s JRPG “Lunar: Silver Star Story”

(Note if embedding didn't work with time stamp fast forward to about the five minute mark)

If even for a moment, even in the final session of the campaign, the characters are given access to an ancient weapon of some long forgotten race (a staple of fantasy) the Referee has just given them something worth talking about for days if not years on end. An entire island at their fingertips, not just a simple airship but a land mass flying through the sky under means unknown to any of them … and it was theirs!

Obviously it cannot always be, such power cannot be too long in the hands of the players, but for a session, maybe two it has the potential to be something amazing! Why is that? Because it is a truly magical thing, it is something old and ancient and just up there on the list of the fantastical that, while not alone, can wipe some of the mud and grime away from so much of a game and just allow the players to wonder for a moment …

To me we are lacking in the fantastical anymore in our games. So many of us (myself included) go straight to the weird, the dark the frightening and one of the most amazing things about fantasy is lost and that is a sense of wonder a sense that our character inhabit a world of so much lost beauty and magic and that they(!) are finding it, discovering it and exploring the lost and fantastic depths of a world. Too much anymore I see myself in PbP games, in convention games and so on fighting, sloushing my way through muck and dirt and just generally seeming to exist in deary, violent, DARK worlds.

One thing that got me excited about 4e when it was first announced was this idea that while the world was dark and evil was on all sides that their would be shining beacons of light and hope of finding glorious lost cities and places of wonder that reflected a better time … Instead I got more dark, “look we're hardcore!” stuff.

Recently Dragon Age Origins went on sale for $8.00 on Steam around the same time a 2d platforming action RPG named Dust went on sale. I got Dust, why? Giant statues as big as a mountain, lost, floating ruins, just … stuff that made me wonder at the construction the history and so on. Dragon Age … Dragon Age had more mud.

So what am I saying in this long rant? Well I started off wanting to talk about ho much I love airships and floating islands, but really, I just want people, tabletop gamers, video gamers, card gamers to remember and attempt to once again remember it doesn't all have to be dark and gritty and hopeless in games. Think back to the first time you read (or watched) The Fellowship of the Rings and imagined Middle Earth, the colors, the ancient fortresses, Last Home and even Moria! All were things of beauty and wonder even if bad things happened there they all filled you (or at least me) with wonder and a driving need to explore and find them!


  1. This is an excellent write up. So very true and I'm willing to be more than a few of us are suffering from the same without even realizing it.

  2. I have been out of gaming since the mid 90's, and the whole fascination with *-punk and darker worlds has been something of a mystery to me. Dark is the literary version of lens flares in movies. So I guess what I am trying to say is that J.J. Abrams has now ruined RPG's as well as movies. ;)

  3. Airships are awesome. I loved them the moment I found the airship in Final Fantasy One. Sky castles are cool, too. The early game I ran as DM had a sky castle and and airship.

    I wonder if "Grim-Dark" is what's left after that sense of wonder is gone.

  4. My campaign world is all about flying ships, floating islands and high magic. Sure there is some dark and gritty stuff if that is what the players want to do, but the setting it designed as high fantasy all the way. We are playing a game full of magic, let us use it!

  5. Hmmm... I am notorious for running dark fantasy games although I do like having wonder in my games as well. Gritty games are meant to realise more realistic games I think where as high magic "floating thing" games are great power games. I actually tend to morph my gritty games into "floating things" games at the end as a reward for all of those really tough times the players went through.

    In fact, it is this reason that I chose the Pathfinder Adventure Path Skull and Shackles for my in person game as it starts very dark and gritty and then transforms over the six modules into a huge reward of power to the players. A really great style of adventure and one that transforms through both styles of play.

    I think that both styles need to be in place. A game can support both and I do not think that it is a binary choice that gritty precludes wonder and I can see a place for both.

  6. Found this while looking for campaign advice on airships and floating islands for a campaign I'm building for my fiance to play in (among which: underwater cities, and floating islands, were two of her "must haves", both of which I'm inexperienced with as a DM lol)...

    Gotta say, I completely agree. Whilst I love me some grim-dark, a lot of the "woah!" factor has been lost since I started playing TTRPGs as a kid two decades ago. I notice almost every setting, regardless of initial promises, devolves into gritty, pseudo-action horror repetition over time.

    I much prefer homebrew settings these days, even if I bastardize the rulesets into something bearing only a shadow of a semblance to d20. Really, I like the rules to be fairly gritty. Armor as DR; sanity; wounds and vigor system; called shots & limb damage; spell points tied to your endurance; taint and purity; non-instant magical healing... Stuff all that into a game, I'm in system-heaven.

    On the other hand, gimme those magical worlds that captivated me as a kid. Lunar was one of my favorite games (I still own and play both Silver Star Story and Eternal Blue). Castle in the Sky was fantastic example of an old floating city. Disney's Atlantis was another well thought out mystifying worlds. Gimme stuff like that! Exploration of uncharted areas, finding ancient lost civilizations, hell, I'd even be in for a necropolis raid with truly massive humanoid statues keeping the cave ceiling from collapsing like Atlas holding the world/sky.

    Too often settings are dark and dirty and just... Mucky. They're mucky, that's all there is to it. For all the promises and hints of wonder, it's the same muddy, filthy, bloody swamps over and over again...


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